Myanmar government ups the ante with military over political role

Popularly elected National League for Democracy launches bid to change constitution and reduce power of armed forces.

myanmar military
Military officers appointed to Myanmar Parliament arrive for a sitting in Naypyidaw earlier this month [File: Thet Aung/AFP]

Yangon, Myanmar – Officials bribed and bullied voters, stuffed ballot boxes and pushed ahead with a May 2008 referendum on a new constitution despite the deadliest natural disaster in Myanmar‘s recorded history.

For the generals, the charter was a vital step towards a carefully planned new system that would resemble a democracy but keep the military firmly in charge.

And it could not be postponed. Even by Cyclone Nargis, which tore through the country’s Irrawaddy Delta leaving about 140,000 people dead.

Political activist Tint Soe was in the minority, at least according to the official results, when he picked up a pen at a polling booth and voted “no” to the military government‘s proposed constitution.

“It was enacted by force when hundreds of thousands of civilians were dying,” Tint Soe told Al Jazeera. “It was a merciless act.”

Tint Soe is now a legislator for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), which last month began its boldest bid yet to wrest power from the generals and into civilian hands by changing the constitution.

He was among hundreds who backed a vote in parliament to form a new committee to amend the charter, bringing leader Aung San Suu Kyi a step closer to fulfilling one of her party’s key election pledges.

The 45-member body is tasked with changing sections that pose an “obstacle” to multiparty democracy and free and fair elections, according to a document circulated among MPs.

Earlier efforts to amend the constitution to remove the military's veto failed to meet the 75 percent support in parliament [Hnin Yadana Zaw/Reuters]
Earlier efforts to amend the constitution to remove the military’s veto failed to meet the 75 percent support in parliament [Hnin Yadana Zaw/Reuters]

Military obstacle

Forming the committee, though, was the easy part. The generals made sure when they wrote the original charter that it would be all but impossible to amend without their say-so, experts say.

When the committee publishes a draft outlining its proposed changes in July, it will need at least 75 percent of combined votes across both houses of parliament in order to become law.

But the constitution gives unelected military legislators one-quarter of all seats, so generals can veto any changes they do not like.

One observer has argued the NLD could, theoretically, banish the armed forces from parliament because the charter does not set a minimum number of military seats in the lower house.

But critics say the military would never allow that, arguing it is obvious the charter’s authors intended to guarantee the military enough seats to veto any changes.

Assuming they are right, Aung San Suu Kyi is unlikely to succeed in changing clauses that, for example, give the military control of key ministries, even though she commands a large majority.

She would also have trouble convincing the military to scrap a clause that bars her from being president.

Section 59f, seemingly designed with her late British husband and two sons in mind, says no one with a foreign spouse or child can take the job.  

To get around that, Aung San Suu Kyi’s advisers came up with the new role of state counsellor, through which she has ruled, as she puts it, from “above the president”.

The man credited with finding this loophole, a top constitutional lawyer named Ko Ni, was assassinated in broad daylight two years ago in what was seen as a reminder of the dangers of challenging the military’s power.

On February 15, a court in Myanmar’s main city of Yangon sentenced two men to death and gave jail terms to two others in connection with the murder.

No need for military

Outside the court, Ma Ma Lwin, a campaigner, handed out stickers encouraging people to protest against the constitution.

“Nobody told the military to take these seats in parliament … they don’t need to be there,” she said.

On the second anniversary of Ko Ni’s death in late January, the NLD tabled an emergency motion to form the committee, though the timing was “just a coincidence”, said Aung Kyi Nyunt, the NLD legislator who proposed it.

The move sparked a protest from military legislators who said the party had failed to follow the proper procedure. Others complained the NLD had not given opposition groups enough seats on the committee.

Aung Kyi Nyunt dismissed that criticism. “The NLD has 58 percent of the seats in parliament,” he told Al Jazeera. “If we didn’t want to include any other parties we wouldn’t have to.”

But that majority is seemingly useless against the military’s veto, leaving many to wonder what the NLD realistically expects to achieve.  

With the party looking ahead to the 2020 election, one goal could be to give voters more detail about what constitutional reform would actually look like – even if they are as yet unable to deliver it.

“I think it’s about getting it down on record and then if they were to be re-elected in 2020, they would use the following five years to really work on pushing through those reforms,” said Melissa Crouch, an expert on Myanmar’s constitution.

Another reason they might be turning to this issue now is the slow progress in the country’s peace process.

Striking an agreement with an array of ethnic armed groups who have been fighting the government for decades was another of Aung San Suu Kyi’s main election promises.

The military-written charter on sale at a stall in Yangon in April 2008 [File: Aung Hla Tun/Reuters]
The military-written charter on sale at a stall in Yangon in April 2008 [File: Aung Hla Tun/Reuters]

Ethnic conflicts

As violence continues to rage in the borderlands, the committee is an opportunity to show these groups their demands for a federal system could soon be enshrined in the charter.

And there are plenty of smaller matters in the constitution that ethnic parties in peripheral states might want to address as part of the dialogue.

The 400-page softback, published in Burmese and English, covers everything from redrawing state boundaries to a provincial government’s right to tax the contents of a “treasure trove”.

But it is section 261 that will probably stir most debate. The military-backed opposition party has proposed amending it so that states can elect their own chief ministers.

Until there are significant changes to clauses that entrench military power, however, resentment is likely to linger.

The vast majority of people did not even get a chance to look at the proposed charter before the 2008 vote, says Tint Soe, the activist turned legislator who voted against it.

“Their approach was: the less people know the better,” he said.

At a recent rally in Mandalay, the country’s second city, protesters gathered to voice support for the government’s new committee.

One demonstrator, a poet named San Nein Oo, told a local reporter the only good thing about the constitution was its cover.

Others may disagree; with its generic sans serif font and drop shadow effect, the book’s exterior is no exemplar of design.

Then again, when it was first published ahead of the 2008 vote, the generals were not exactly trying to lure people into reading it.

Source: Al Jazeera